Love in the time of pandemic

Recently, a friend mentioned the phrase, “love in the time of pandemic,” (playing on Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, of course) as we reminisced and teased each other about the things that we miss now that we are all forced to work from home.  I thought it would be a good title for this essay, since I want to reflect on love—yes, the romantic kind—once again.  

I am not sure if this is true everywhere, but I noticed from stories shared with me lately, that many couples whom I have known to be happy together, seem to be running into a lot of difficulties these days, finding it very hard to keep their love alive.  Many of them find themselves arguing more often than usual, or feeling disappointed about their partner’s responses, and several of them have actually called it quits (holding grudges, of course).  I wonder if the pandemic has anything to do with it.  Of course, we know that people in a relationship argue once in a while, or even break up, whether there’s a crisis or not.  But I want to ruminate on the possibility that the CoViD situation is making things more difficult, even for couples who would otherwise be normally getting along very well.

The first thing to blame is the forced distancing that makes all relationships of this sort long-distance ones, even if the people involved are in the same city.  Naturally, relationships based on being physically together will suffer tremendously.  Pining for the other’s physical presence, despite all the platforms available for real-time connection, becomes stronger as the quarantine period gets longer.  Also, long-distance relationships are mostly based on verbal communication.  Partners who have not been very verbal and have gotten by with expressing their affection through physical touch, gift-giving, malling, or going on trips where there are so many distractions that they don’t have to really talk to their respective partners, are now at a loss for words.  The issue becomes more burdensome when the other in the relationship happens to be loquacious in his or her expression of love.

Also, because life as we knew it had to change as people are forced to stay home, chances are, there is now more time to think about things.  Unfortunately, this “thinking about things” usually take the form of thinking about what is outside of us.  People tend to think about the relationship they are in and now have the extra luxury of examining the minutiae of that relationship.  Without the distraction of the daily rush to work, or school, or doing errands, coupled with the worry over how one’s relationship could be kept alive in this situation, the mind tends to nitpick.  All the wrong things about the relationship are brought to consciousness.  Disappointments are felt.  Confrontations ensue.  And if one is not skilled in giving believable and legitimate excuses, then disaster is imminent.

Panic over the relationship and the burden of having to deal with the dangers of the virus, especially when tragedy strikes one’s family, now tend to lead to more misunderstandings.  Accusations are thrown so easily—“you don’t care anymore”—when voice or video calls are missed.  The urgency of having to prove one’s love within very limited parameters could drive people crazy.  The weak-hearted have no choice but to give up.

It is often said that the Buddha does not talk about eros or romantic love,  so lovers who seek crystal-ball like advise from Buddhist writings are often disappointed.  This is because the Buddha sought to eliminate suffering in the world by treating the causes of suffering.  Romantic relationships, unfortunately for its fans, are often a cause of suffering.  It is as if society has crafted it so that we suffer in it.  If we don’t suffer in love, we don’t love at all.  The drama  goes hand in hand with being in a relationship.  Think of Romeo and Juliet (if you die, I die), of Guinevere and Lancelot (if I can’t have you, nobody can have me), of Tristan and Isolde (if I suffer, you should also suffer).  We have been led to believe that we cannot be whole without finding the one who could complete us.  It’s as if a happy and sane relationship where two whole beings come together is an oxymoron.  Love is sought out of the need to need and be needed.  We identify the one according to our preconceived notions of the perfect person or the perfect partner for us (but how do we know?)  When this person does not behave the way we expect, or turns out to be different from our idea of him or her, we get heart-broken.  We trap ourselves in this terrible pattern and expect a happy ending.   We do not see how sick the situation is to begin with, and how we design it to produce more sickness—more suffering—along the way.  There is truth, after all, to Jean-Paul Sartre’s pronouncement that love is doomed to fail.

On the contrary, when Buddhism takes up the subject of love, it describes it in terms of the four practices (the four immeasurables) of loving-kindness, compassion, giving joy, and the cultivation of all these to benefit all.  (see Metta Sutta – Loving-kindness (1-2), AN 4.125-126).  Love is engaged in with kindness and good will, not distrust and suspicion. It is supposed to help alleviate suffering, not cause it, in the partner or in one’s self.  It is supposed to be a cause of joy, a contentment felt in oneself and in the other’s self, not a cause for craving to be made whole by the other.  And most of all, it is supposed to be inclusive.  Love is meant to grow and expand beyond one’s limited relationships in order to include all.  The last one makes it difficult to align Buddhism with romantic relationships that are designed to be exclusive.  But this does not mean that Buddhism frowns upon such relationships.  It just frames it in a different way.

There is a parable in Chapter 8 of The Lotus Sutra that narrates the story of a poor person who visits his rich friend.  The latter treats him to a feast, which got him so happily intoxicated that he fell asleep.  Meanwhile, the rich host, being a public servant, was called to an urgent business and had to leave immediately.  He wanted to help his less fortunate friend by gifting him with a magic jewel that could fulfil all desires.  But he did not want to disturb the poor man’s sleep, so he sewed the jewel on the inside of his jacket, instead, and left.

When the poor man woke up, he realized his friend had gone, but not the jewel that was sewn into his clothing.  He lived a life of poverty, wandering like a nomad from one place to another, and going through many, many difficult situations, always wanting, always needing.  After a long time of such suffering, he met his rich friend once more. The latter could not understand the state he was in, given the magic jewel he had given him.  Only then did the poor man realize that he did not have to suffer so, since he had had the priceless jewel with him all this time.

I think we suffer in love because we are like the poor man who did not know that he had the means to be happy and well all this time, all on his own.  We enter a relationship thinking that we have no value until we find someone who will love and complete us.  Then, we cling to that person for dear life.  When things change, as they are bound to, or when they don’t turn out the way we planned, we feel that we have failed, and we are back to being incomplete and feeling worthless again.

The Buddhist understanding of love starts with our being whole.  We are already priceless as we are, like the magic jewel.  Our task is to work on our self so that we, on our own, become our own source of joy and happiness.  Only then can we act with true loving-kindness and compassion toward all beings.  A person who gets into a relationship as a whole being will also be able to allow the other to be whole, all unto his or her own.  She or he is not likely to love mere (false) ideas of the other that feeds the ego.  In short, there will be no illusions.  Without illusions, joy and happiness can flow freely within the relationship and naturally expand outside of it, affecting everything else in a positive way.  This way, that love becomes all-inclusive.  Pandemic or not, it would stay true; but such is especially helpful in crisis situations.

Love is supposed to inspire joy and happiness in us.  It is supposed to be an addition to the things in life that we already enjoy, not something we need to fill (an imaginary) void.  If everybody entered a relationship with this frame of mind, I think relationships would withstand the test of time without the suffering that is often believed to come with it.  I’m afraid, however, that a scenario like that would seem too boring to those who have been led to believe that love is not love without the corresponding drama, which is outwardly detested but is actually sought for in some twisted notion of how it is to be in a relationship. 

It seems we have a long way to go in unlearning what we have been taught about love.  We can only hope that we all find the magic jewel in the hem of our inner self, sooner rather than later.

Leni Garcia, MA, PhD works as a professor of Philosophy but lives as an artist-advocate for creativity, gender- and religious-inclusivity, pluralism, and environment care.  When not trying to form deep connections with gentle, sentient beings, she pushes paint on paper, dances, and recycles odds and ends that can be recycled.  Her favorite term-break activity is marathon-watching movie- and cartoon-series with her daughter.

Contra Konmari: the art of “hoarding” and care for the environment

            No, I am not against Marie Kondo’s minimalist philosophy of tidying one’s home, letting go of stuff, clearing the clutter.   (I just couldn’t resist the rhyming of the first syllables.)  I seriously believe in the wisdom she imparts.  There is truth in “putting one’s house in order” before anything productive can commence,  although this is truer psychologically for me, than physically.   I am not very tidy in my own space, but I also cannot deal with too much clutter.  Or more specifically, I cannot bear with disorganized clutter, unless I am in the frenzy of creating something.   “Disorganized clutter” is an oxymoron, I admit.  But it is my way of walking the middle path between obsessive orderliness and absolute mess. 

            I think Marie Kondo’s phrase, “spark joy” is beautiful, and it is a good rule of thumb in deciding which object one should keep and which one to let go of.  The problem in my case is that everything I have either sparks joy in me or is a necessity.  Otherwise, I would not have them.   I have tons of art and craft materials, for instance, that I will probably not be able to use up even if I lived three lifetimes.  But each and every one of them make me feel very happy when I see them around me, when I touch them, and most especially when I create with them.  So we see here where that rule fails in my case.  If I were to do a decluttering based on what sparks joy, I would be left with exactly the same things I have now.

            This is not a defense of hoarding, although I often joke about this.  I don’t really hoard, if by “hoarding” we mean storing valuable things and keeping it secret or well-guarded.  What I store, most people would not put any premium on.  I just have a lot of things that I find useful and enjoyable in my life.  Moreover, I rarely throw things away, no matter how old and shabby they have become or when I stop using them for their intended purpose, especially when I know nobody would benefit from them or want them.  Think 4- or 5-inch stiletto shoes, for instance.  Instead, I strip the leather—faux or real—and make jewelry, cord ties, and other ornaments out of them.  I love repairing things and that is why I have so many of them to reuse or give as presents to those in whom they can spark joy.

            One might think that I have a problem letting go.  Yes, I do.  But perhaps not because of the usual reasons.  Although this might sound far-fetched, it is the truth:  my hoarding tendencies are rooted in an environmental ethic.  I have a lot of things, because apart from all the things that immediately spark joy in me, I also keep a lot of things that, I would like to believe, will prevent or delay further destruction of the environment.  So I keep them until they are needed and can be reused, or until someone who will certainly recycle or benefit from them comes to pick up my pile.  I buy big containers of things we need so that I have less packaging to get rid of.  When I foresee needing something over and over, I buy in bulk to save gasoline and time, which I would spend if I have to go back to the store for more of the same thing.  I prefer things that are refillable so there is less trash for the landfill.  My daughter once joked (I hope it was a joke!) that my penchant for saving things that can be reused, saving them from the landfill, has turned our home into a landfill.  It physically hurts me to throw away things—mere trash to other people—when I know that they can very easily be recycled.  And, gratefully, I, and others in my life, have been saved from anxiety and stress so many times because I kept things, and they were available when they were most needed.

             I therefore prided myself with being eco-friendly, for walking the talk, so to speak, for being frugal with resources and being an avid recyclist.  But our current battle with COVID-19 belied this.  Unable to go out and replenish our groceries on a regular basis, I scoured the cupboards for things that could help stretch our food supplies.  I found leftover snacks that were still good, but normally would have just been tossed to the garbage bin.  I researched on the safety of canned goods that were a couple of weeks beyond their “best by” dates, and used them in my cooking.  In ordinary circumstances, these would have been thrown away as well.  I finally got to use condiments that were just standing in the pantry, which would have found their way out of the house unused.  Little sugar and cream sachets from take outs would have remained unused and eventually grown old and unusable, if it weren’t for our dwindling supplies.  I learned to make bread and tried making butter and yogurt from leftover ingredients that usually would have stayed in the cupboard until they were inedible, and then thrown away.  I realized that the convenience of eating out and take out food in normal times made us so wasteful of items in our own cupboard.   

            In a way, it was comical for us to scrounge around the kitchen for these leftovers.  But this is when I realized how wasteful we were still, in spite of the conscious effort to save and recycle resources.  In times of scarcity, the littlest things could become lifesavers.

            Environmentalists were quick to notice, and happily, too, that the community quarantine imposed in different parts of the world have made a positive impact on the environment.  With significantly less cars on the road, closing down of factories, and people required to stay indoors, the skies are suddenly bluer with the absence of smog, and water bodies around cities have lost their mucky color.  Streets—well, some streets—are quiet and clean, for once, a double win against noise and solid waste pollution.

            It is often suggested that this is a way of romanticizing the virus, showing that the virus has brought good things, ignoring the suffering of many and the loss of lives.  I believe, however, that romanticizing it is not the point.  I don’t think anybody would rather have the virus.  But what we often do not see is that environmental destruction and the resulting Climate Change has been killing us all this time.  Air pollution, for instance, has been known to decrease our life expectancy by an average of three years, and many do die of respiratory ailments caused by inhaling polluted air.[1]  We are not aware of it because we do not see any sudden change.  Unlike the COVID-19 situation where blame could be attributed to something or to people, Climate Change is so amorphous.  There is no one person or one object to blame.[2]  We are all to blame.  Human interference has been killing the environment.  But we do not see it.

            In an interview with United Nations Environment Programme, Chief Environmental Economist, Pushpam Kumar[3] (March 31, 2020), he says,

            Regardless of its cause or origin, the emergence of COVID-19 has underscored the mutually-affective relationship between people and nature.  Now, we must try to understand and appreciate the limits to which humans can push nature, before the impact is negative.  Those limits must be embraced by our consumption and production aspiration.    

            Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh has a word for this “mutually-affective relationship between people and nature.”  He calls it interbeing, and derives the insight from the Diamond Sutra.  In a discussion with the Buddha, the venerable Subhuti asks how one should conduct herself or control her thoughts if she were to follow the Bodhisattva path.  The Buddha responded:

            …Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought:  ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they have perception or no perception or neither perception nor no perception, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all.  And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’[4]

            The Buddha advises that the path to enlightenment does not discriminate against any being.  Everything is equal.  Everything will have to be liberated.  To one who understands this, no division exists.  All is one.  The idea of a singular entity, existing all on its own, is an illusion.  And this is the reason that although all is saved, no single being is saved.  As Thich Nhat Hanh himself says,  “Life is one. We do not need to slice it into pieces and call this or that piece a self. What we call a self is actually made only of non-self elements”.[5]  As he would also say, we all inter-are.  We are connected to everything in the world. We don’t have to go to the beach or climb mountains or hug trees to know how we interconnect with everything.  Everything we have in our immediate surroundings—the paper we hold in our hand, the food that we prepare for our meals, have one way or another been sourced from nature, whether by way of cutting down trees or by having another person create it.  We are all part of this world, and part of one another.  When we do realize this, we understand why we have to care for everything that we have.  And that means not throwing things away unnecessarily.

            Marie Kondo herself advises that before giving away our things, it would be good to hug them, thank them and say goodbye.  This is not a mere anthropomorphic bias.  It is a recognition that everything is valuable because everything has all the elements in the world, both animate and inanimate.  Everything has been nourished by the natural elements and by many individuals who have worked on their production before they found their way to our homes.  It is a way of honoring all who are involved in the production of things.

            So, Con Konmari (with Konmari), maybe “hoarding” is not so bad as long as it is not borne out of attachment.  Perhaps, minimalism can take different forms.  It does not always have to mean a bare room, but whether things in the room, cluttered or organized, are cared for or not.  Could we call this a minimalism done the roundabout way?  A Konmari method done sideways, perhaps?  Maybe keeping things for as long as they are useful in any way can also save time for other productive activities, and save resources.  Care for things so that they last us a long, long time, is also aligned to the bodhisattva path.   Everything is always valuable because of all the people and materials that come together in the process of their production.  They don’t suddenly become valuable because of some temporary shortage, only to be taken for granted once more in times of abundance.   It is a way of making sure that all that we have taken from the environment has been put to good use, and that nothing—no sacrifice—is wasted.  If we develop a lifestyle of using things down to their “last drop,” of reusing those that can be reused, then we consume less and we take less from nature.  In turn, nature is given a chance to take a breather without causing any harm to us.

[1]Bowler, Jacinta, “New Evidence Shows How COVID-19 Has Affected Global Air Pollution, ”

[2] We will recall that evolutionary psychology tells us that we cannot deal with any threat unless it has a face, it has moral implications, it happens within a given short period of time, and it happens very suddenly.  Climate change has not of these.  See George Marhall’s Don’t Even Think About It:   Why our brains are wired to ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury, 2014)


[4] Chapter three inThe Diamond Sutra, translated by Red Pine (Counterpoint, 2001)

[5]Thich Nhat Hanh, “Dharma Talk:  Protecting the environment,”

Leni Garcia, MA, PhD works as a professor of Philosophy but lives as an artist-advocate for creativity, gender- and religious-inclusivity, pluralism, and environment care.  When not trying to form deep connections with gentle, sentient beings, she pushes paint on paper, dances, and recycles odds and ends that can be recycled.  Her favorite term-break activity is marathon-watching movie- and cartoon-series with her daughter.

Challenges to Compassion

Our shared suffering over CoVid-19 seems to have finally brought us all together.  Imposed quarantine measures experienced globally have somehow made us sympathetic toward one another.  Everybody is grateful to health workers risking their lives, continuing to care for those who are sick, to those tending to food and grocery shops, drugstores, and other establishments catering to our basic needs, in spite of the enhanced community quarantine in certain places.  We feel for everybody. We know we are not alone. We have never been so connected in our isolation. Everybody is now online, or on the cell, asking about loved ones, finding long lost friends, finally spending time listening to and caring for each other from a distance. People have opened their properties to strangers, providing shelter.  Funds are raised to help those in need. Globally, we seem to be responding to the situation in open and compassionate ways, government flops notwithstanding.

But are we, really?  On the micro-level, was our first response to the quarantine an act of compassion?

Here in Metro Manila, the first reaction was to run to the grocery store and panic-buy, to hoard on the basic necessities, to leave none for others who might need them more.  Some sent the help to the hospital or to do errands, and then when they got sick, left them on their own. Businesses whose employees showed signs of symptoms forced them to keep on working, thereby spreading the virus to others, simply because they are on a “no work, no pay” scheme, and staying at home for self-quarantine was never thought to be incentivized by the companies they work for.  Being kind, having a long view of the situation, unfortunately, is not profitable for business. Those believed to have been exposed to the virus—the health workers—were ostracized and discriminated against. They help save lives, and yet many of them lose their lives in the process. This is the saddest thing CoViD-19 has brought us. We seem to lose the most enlightened among us.

In the academe where my energies have been concentrated during this quarantine period,  students protested against online learning and immediately launched a grievance system through which they could complain—legitimately or not—against faculty members who were trying hard to deal with their respective personal situations while still attending to their students.  If they posted homework online or if they were not able to respond to a students’ query immediately, they were reported as violating given policies. They—we—were looked upon as the enemy, intending our students harm, instead of fellow beings vulnerable to the exact same danger that everybody is facing, and perhaps even suffering more because of our responsibilities as heads of family.  Unable to see the time and effort poured into making sure that everybody’s situation is considered and cared for, these young people thought the worst of us simply because we wanted to be responsible for the learning we owe them, while attending to all that has to be dealt with in our personal lives.  The spirit of the decision-making processes and good will in the decisions made were ignored. Us-versus-them mentality immediately prevailed.  It was heartbreaking.

None of these sound compassionate at all.  And because they were our first responses to the situation, they are most likely our truest intentions.  I keep thinking that the way we behave in times of crisis says a lot about the way we really are. The picture I got was not pleasant.

Modern evolutionary psychology explains this reaction to danger, saying that “our modern skulls house a stone age mind.”1 which is trained to see threats from other humans (like a man with a club, not from inanimate sources), and which are morally outrageous, short-term in nature, and happening suddenly, rather than gradually.2  One could argue about this but somehow, CoVid-19 fits the bill.  Since we can’t see the virus, we have to put a face on it—anyone we see in proximity to us will do, since that is how the caveman assessed his surroundings, watching out for nearby enemies.

But if evolutionary psychology is correct, this also means that the immediate response is to defend ourselves and those belonging to our immediate social group—family and close friends.  From this point of view, all that has happened is understandable. But this also means there are huge obstacles that we have to overcome in order to practice compassion. 

This reminds me of the parable of the burning house in the Lotus Sutra.  A rich man sees his house burning with his children inside, oblivious to the danger they are in because they are so engrossed in the game they are playing.  The father realizes that he would not be able to get them out of the house by going in and wrapping them in blankets or by calling out to them. So he uses their love of toys to lure them out of the house, telling them the different carts they have been wanting are now outside and that they should come and get them.  The children do go out and were all given a large and bejewelled cart each.

There is so much more to the story, of course, but it illustrates the idea of using “skillful means”—ways that are suitable to the situation, in order to achieve the goal.  But what means are suitable to our situation? How can we be shaken out of our preoccupation with our own selves? Right now, only the wise know. The Lotus Sutra says:

With wisdom as bright as the sun and the moon, and timely use of skillful means, they make the enterprise of the Great Vehicle prosper and grow, and lead many to attain supreme awakening quickly. Always living in the blessedness of a reality that is fine and wonderful, with immeasurable great compassion, they save the living from suffering.3

This brings another parable to mind.  “An Arm for a Life,”4 narrates that while walking through the forest one day, the Buddha witnessed an eagle swoop down from the sky to catch a dove.  The dove, fortunately, was able to flee to the Buddha for protection. Unable to get to the dove, the eagle then argued for his case saying that by saving the dove, the Buddha was actually causing him, the eagle, starvation.

The Buddha then took out a knife and cut a piece of his flesh from his arm and gave it to the eagle to eat.  The eagle still complained that he would have gotten more meat from the dove, so the Buddha cut more flesh from his arm and fed the eagle some more, until his bone was exposed.  Then, taunted by the eagle for only trying to appear good, the Buddha said, “If my words are the sincere truth, may my arm grow back as good as new.” And it did. Whereupon the eagle revealed himself to be the Emperor of Heaven, bowed to the Buddha, and flew away while singing praises to the Buddha for the compassion he showed.

The ability to suffer with and for others, does “save the living from suffering.” But, again, how do we get there, to be whole-heartedly compassionate?  In the Lotus Sutra, it is written,

To enter the room of the Tathagata is to have great compassion for all living beings. To wear the robe of the Tathagata is to be gentle and patient. To sit on the seat of the Tathagata is to contemplate the emptiness of all things. One should dwell in peace with all three and then, never becoming lazy or careless, teach this Dharma Flower Sutra everywhere to bodhisattvas…5

Compassion for all, gentleness and patience, contemplation of emptiness.  Such tall orders for us who are apparently given to the strong pull of our primitive psychology.  But of the three, I believe that the last, contemplation on emptiness, is key to the practice of the other two.  Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult to achieve. Understanding emptiness requires letting go of our sense of self that is separate from others.  It requires understanding that it is because the self is empty that we are interconnected with all that there is. For if we are empty, there’s room for everyone and everything else. 

The process of emptying, however, is not easy.  How do we fight against centuries and centuries of reinforced selfishness?  Baby steps, I guess? We practice, little by little, one day at a time. It is such a challenge to do so, I have to admit, but changes have to be made, or none of us will survive the virus.  We are in a burning house and we need to get out. Perhaps we can start with our language, change it from a language of hatred (disguised fear) and confrontation into a language of care. Turn “grievance” to “needing help,” for instance, or defensive speech to a speech of understanding.   Then, if we can follow through, start expanding ourselves to see just how it goes. In time and enough practice, perhaps we can turn ourselves inside out and realize there is nothing there after all to hold on to.  Then we’ll have space for everything and everyone else, and see the magic in the Buddha’s sacrifice of his arm for a life.  It will be a struggle, and a difficult one, too. But if we get there, it will all be worth it.   

In the meantime, as the prayer goes, “May we all be safe, and free from fear.”

1 Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby, Evolutionary Psychology: a Primer,
2 Conan, Neal and Daniel Gilbert, “Humans wired to respond to short-term problems,”
3 Reeves, Gene, The Lotus Sutra:  a contemporary translation of a Buddhist Classic,  (Wisdom Publications, 2008).
4 Talovich, G. B. Trans.The love of life. (Taipei, Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 2002).
5 Reeves, Gene, The Lotus Sutra:  a contemporary translation of a Buddhist Classic,  (Wisdom Publications, 2008).

Leni Garcia, MA, PhD works as a professor of Philosophy but lives as an artist-advocate for creativity, gender- and religious-inclusivity, pluralism, and environment care.  When not trying to form deep connections with gentle, sentient beings, she pushes paint on paper, dances, and recycles odds and ends that can be recycled.  Her favorite term-break activity is marathon-watching movie- and cartoon-series with her daughter.

On Death, Life, and Deadlines

I started reflecting on the theme of this blog the time a friend called last week to ask if I could go and see his father at the hospital right away.  His father happened to be a close friend who had battled against cancer for a year.  Sadly, he lost that battle and passed away a day after my last visit. 

As I dropped everything I was doing that day, I chastised myself for taking some time to relax the previous weekend instead of working on the papers and other tasks I needed to do to beat the deadlines this week.  I do not usually rush to hospitals or attend funerals.  It’s much too sad for me, and I like remembering people as they were in life.  But I have known for a long while now that death is the affair of the living, and knew I had to go.  On my way to the hospital, I was therefore anxious about two things:  I was going to miss deadlines and will be overwhelmed by all the additional deadlines this week, having given up that time allotted for work; and I could not deal with the impending passing of one whom I thought would be around for a long time still. 

It was difficult to see my long-time friend that way, in his deathbed, unable to speak.   He was always full of life, and so much fun.  I’d known him more than half my life, and he was a refuge.  Even when I did not see him everyday, I always trusted that he was just there, and I could always call on him, that we could always exchange stories over beer or a bottle of wine, or over nothing except our own good selves, sharing what bothered us, making life so comic that we’d always end up laughing whatever the case was.  He was like a big brother, or a father, that I could always count on.  I guess he spoiled me, too, just like he did members of his family and his other friends.  One could say he took care of me, in less obvious ways, and that we loved each other, for he knew how to love, as evidenced by the love his sons and his wife give to so many others, including myself.  And so this loss is one that I grieve for quite deeply.

I held his hand and told him I loved him, and that everything was going to be alright.  We had a good run.  He had a lot of fun.  He raised a loving family.  He need not worry about anything.  He could not speak, but his eyes were open, seeming to look at me, and he would squeeze my hand as I spoke to him.  I thought about how frustrating it must be for him to not be able to respond, and how lucky we were that we never held back in our friendship.  He was one person who knew the proper way to hug, and he hugged a lot of us—and so often, too—in his lifetime.  I was grateful for him.  I just thought that we wouldn’t lose him so soon.  He was always strong.  Always present.  Perhaps, I was still in denial then, that now I realize, I never told him goodbye.

Death was one of the reasons Prince Siddhartha started reflecting on the transient nature of life, leading to his enlightened insight that everything changes even though some things change ever so slowly that we mistake them to be permanent and get attached to them.   Death, on the other hand, is one of the most obvious manifestations of change, and that is why it is devastating to us.  Our attachments leave us in grief.  We suffer our loss, and find it difficult to be comforted because the absence of one who passed leaves a void that will never be filled up again.  But then, again, death is the greatest reminder that everything devolves into nothingness.  The absence it causes allows us the opportunity for sobriety from our intoxication with presence, although the process always proves difficult. 

It is this character of death that reminds us of what I believe is one of the most significant teachings of Buddhism:  that all we have is the here and now.  Here and now is where eternity is.  If we miss it, we miss it forever.  When we worry about the future, or we regret the past, we miss it.  When we hold back because of so many inhibitions, we miss it.  When we spend it in anger, we miss the opportunity to love.  The only way to really live is to be always in the here and now.  If we don’t, everything will always be too late. 

I have therefore decided to rethink this thing called “deadline.”  I have been accused of being a workaholic, and I have to admit that I do suffer a form of it.  It is not that I love to work.  In fact, I hate working.  But I work, and I work on tasks as soon as possible, because I want to free myself from work in order to do the things I enjoy as early as possible.  But what I realized after decades of working is that work never ends.  Once I finish a task, there is always something new that will come my way, with a new deadline to beat.  Even the idioms involved—beating the deadline—are violent and morbid.  And yet, we let our lives be ruled by them.  As I said earlier, I was scolding myself for taking more time off from work these days than I used to, because I was not able to prepare for other events that might take time from work and cause me to miss deadlines.  But I’ve decided not to regret them.  For one, it’s in the past and I cannot ever do it over.  More importantly, I spent the time doing things that have always been my lifeline—engagements that allow me to remain sane amidst all the chaos in the world.  If I stay away from these activities too long, my psyche always goes haywire.  They feed my inner life.  They heal me.  They enrich my world and my relationships.  They are what gives me joy in life.  I will now do my best to be busy more with lifelines rather than deadlines.  It is a challenge.  I will fail a lot, but I will keep on trying.  For at the end of the day, everything else becomes inessential.  They are either in the past or in the future.  What matters to me now is whether I spend my here and now in joy (Buddhist mudita).

I think my dear friend spent his life this way.  I know he had so much to deal with at work, but he was more likely to sit with his family in the evenings, exchanging stories or watching TV together, than work on tasks for the next day.  To me, he always had that devil-may-care attitude that made people describe him as being “so cool.”  He loved well and was loved well in return.  When he passed on I started telling friends and family I love them.  I know that I must have sounded strange to those who do not know me well, and I know I have caught some of them off guard and most probably embarrassed them.  But I do not care.  What this loss has taught me is that it is most important that I am able to give the message.  I don’t want to wait until I can’t speak anymore to tell people that I love them.  There are all sorts of love, but all of them is love.  We can never wear that word out.  We can only enrich it.  So we must not be afraid or embarrassed to say it over and over and mean it.

So as I end my reflections, triggered by my grief over the loss of a close friend, I would like to say:  to all the friends and family who are in my life right now, I do love you.  To friends I have not seen in a long time, I send my love to you, wherever you are.  To former friends from whom my active love had to be withdrawn, I am grateful for the opportunity to give you love in the past and hope that you treasure the love that you receive now from others, for it is precious.  And to those who I am too weak still to find lovable, I trust that love finds you through some other path and gives you joy.

Leni Garcia, MA, PhD works as a professor of Philosophy but lives as an artist-advocate for creativity, gender- and religious-inclusivity, pluralism, and environment care.  When not trying to form deep connections with gentle, sentient beings, she pushes paint on paper, dances, and recycles odds and ends that can be recycled.  Her favorite term-break activity is marathon-watching movie- and cartoon-series with her daughter.

To Love One is to Love All

This must be the most difficult month to celebrate Valentine’s Day, with the nCoV scare that cautions us against all the hugging and the beso-besos we are used to exchange with loved ones and special someone.  Lucky are those who are so averse to touching. This is one case in which a life of aloofness would seem much better than the practice of open arms, literally.  So it is quite ironic that I should be writing about love, usually associated with closeness, big hugs and sweet kisses. Usually. But sometimes, we best veer away from our ordinary notions and explore novel ways of thinking about things.  I therefore suppose that it is quite appropriate to say that this essay is not about romantic love. Not really.

It is often assumed that the Buddha did not endorse romantic love.  While this is not true, Buddhist literature does extol the life of the monastic.  Given the cultivation that one has to practice, often against the habits we have formed early on in life, it is always better to have the support of people who are also trying to achieve the same goals.  But this does not mean that the Buddha disdained romantic love, or those that concern exclusive relationships. Perhaps, in this context, the distinction should not be focused on whether a relationship is romantic or non-romantic, but on whether it is true love or not.

Plato, in the Symposium, establishes that love is the desire for the good and the beautiful.  He traces its different forms, from the love that is born out of attractions to the beauties of the body, through the beauties of the mind, to the love of Beauty itself.  The last is, for him, the most true and perfect love.  It is love of the ideal—the true essence of beauty, which endows all things beautiful the beauty that we find in them.  Whereas the other beauties eventually fade away, the idea of Beauty itself is eternal. Loving Beauty as such would be, for Plato, true love.  So even Plato placed non-romantic love higher than every other form.  For Beauty itself will never change. It is eternal.

Such a beautiful insight.  But really, who falls in love with the “essence of beauty”?  It is a most boring prospect. If we love, we love in the concrete sense.  We love people who are formed with flesh, blood, and bones. Most people think it is perfection, but it is the imperfection, the whole complication of being in love, that is craved for, isn’t it?  And that is why one who loves could often end up so confused, so miserable, at times.

I must admit, though, that I have always been bothered by the idea of the suffering lover.  I have always thought that love should be happy. That it should bring out the best in people.  It should not make people miserable. (The world is miserable enough as it is.) Yet, this view has been questioned by the champions of “loving no matter what” where the “matter” makes them so unhappy.  This is unconditional love, they say, the way love should be. We make it a condition itself that we suffer to prove our love to someone. Plato would not have approved. But would the Buddha have?

The Buddhist literature on love centers on the Brahmaviharas, literally, “the abodes of Brahma.”  These are the four practices of true love:  metta, loving-kindness, the practice of kindness and goodwill; karuna, compassion, the practice of alleviating suffering,  mudita, altruistic joy, the practice of bringing happiness, and upekkha, equanimity and inclusiveness, the practice of seeing all things equally, and thus, achieving serenity.  These four are also called “immeasurables.” (Anguttara Nikaya, Sutta 125-26)  One who loves truly therefore brings about the happiness of all, including her own.  She avoids causing suffering in the beloved, for the beloved’s sorrow is her own, and the beloved’s joy is also her own.  The Metta Sutta describes the true practitioner of love in the following manner:

This is to be done by one skilled in aims
who wants to break through to the state of peace:
Be capable, upright, & straightforward,
easy to instruct, gentle, & not conceited,

content & easy to support,
with few duties, living lightly,
with peaceful faculties, masterful,
modest, & no greed for supporters.

Do not do the slightest thing
that the wise would later censure.
Think: Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.

Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large, middling,
short, subtle, blatant,

seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.

Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.

With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.

Whether standing, walking, sitting, or lying down,
as long as one is alert,
one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding here & now.

Not taken with views,
but virtuous & consummate in vision,
having subdued desire for sensual pleasures,
one never again will lie in the womb.

(translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

It is thus easy to see why we get the impression that Buddhism does not concern itself with romantic love.  Love, in all its forms, inevitably leads to loving all. It is always directed towards spiritual release for all.  But it does not preclude romantic love.  It only precludes unhealthy, egotistic forms of romantic love.  It is, however, far from Plato’s abstracted love. It is still actual, embodied love.  It is just not what we normally think love is. It is a practice not so much in non-attachment, but in expansion of consciousness, so that we can be released from the usual limitations of our views.  Love is found in practice. It is lived love.  As easy as it might sound, it might not be so in actuality.  As with any skill, we have to train for it, as the Metta Sutta above says.  

So maybe, we could take some time now to reflect on our existing relationships and ask if they bring us joy, and if they inspire us to practice the Brahmaviharas, directed toward all sentient beings, not just the one beloved.  As far as love-meters go, these immeasurables aren’t a bad set.


A Zen parable tells of the nun Eshun who, having received a note from a secret admirer, who is one of the monks she is practising with, asks him to “come and embrace” her, if he truly loves her.   In spite of the various interpretations given of this parable, I choose to focus on Eshun’s demand to live love in the here and now. Too much thinking makes us lose out on what could give us true joy in the moment, where the eternal past and the eternal future meet.

This reminds me of a recent email exchange with a friend.  He is over 90 years old, and still so actively researching and writing for the cause of interfaith understanding, which is how we met about six years ago.  For some reason, we had an affinity one can’t, but need not, explain. I sent him a simple and sincere greeting and well-wishes for the new year. I was glad for his expression of delight.  And he wrote, “I am getting too far along in years to hold back how I feel about people. So I sign off my note to you by writing Love,…”

That has given me so much joy.

Leni Garcia, MA, PhD works as a professor of Philosophy but lives as an artist-advocate for creativity, gender- and religious-inclusivity, pluralism, and environment care.  When not trying to form deep connections with gentle, sentient beings, she pushes paint on paper, dances, and recycles odds and ends that can be recycled.  Her favorite term-break activity is marathon-watching movie- and cartoon-series with her daughter.

Mamba Mentality in the Buddhist Practice

Author’s Note:
I would like to address the elephant in the room: Kobe Bryant’s alleged sexual misconduct (rape case). “Alleged” because it was never proven in court. With the absence of a court ruling and even with it, I refuse to pass judgment on Kobe’s guilt or innocence.

Having said that, I would like to add that this piece is not meant to serve as a hagiography of Kobe. It merely wants to acknowledge his positive qualities – qualities that are publicly recognized and whose fruits are made evident by his athletic achievements – that are useful for the practice.

This piece is also written guided by the following notions: that people are not defined by their past actions, whether wholesome or unwholesome, that people can change, and that all of us, despite our imperfections, have something beneficial to share.

Yesterday, I woke up to the news that NBA legend Kobe Bryant has passed away, killed in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles. As a basketball fan and a human being, I am deeply saddened by this news.

Learning that his daughter Gianna was also killed in the accident – they were on the way to Gianna’s basketball game – makes the tragic news even more heartbreaking.

There were other passengers in the helicopter. No one survived the crash. I would like to send thoughts of goodwill to the families and friends the victims left behind.

As a Buddhist practitioner, Kobe’s death serves as a reminder of one of life’s greatest truths: the shortness and inconstancy of human existence. This is true for everyone, even for rich and famous athletes like Kobe.

As one journalist puts it, “Superstars aren’t supposed to die. But of course they do.” Kobe’s death also offered an opportunity for us to reflect on death and how prepared we are in facing the inevitable end of our lives.

I wasn’t a Kobe fan during his early years in the NBA. But as he collected one achievement after another throughout his illustrious career, it became impossible not to appreciate his greatness.

Kobe is a very competitive player. He always brought to every game he played in what came to be known as the “mamba mentality.” Named after a large, highly venomous snake from Africa, it entails having the mindset of not backing down from any opponent and not quitting until the fight is over.

“If you see me in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear,” Kobe once said. He is also known for his remarkable work ethic. His off-season training routine is dubbed as the 666 workout because it involves training for 6 hours a day, 6 days a week for 6 months.

Kobe is Catholic but with the guidance of his long-time coach and Zen practitioner Phil Jackson, he learned how to meditate. Over time, he developed a daily meditation practice and he usually starts his day by sitting for 10 to 15 minutes. “I think it’s important because it sets me up for the rest of the day. It helps me. It’s like having an anchor,” he said.

A friend said that the best way to honor Kobe’s memory is to do our absolute best in whatever we do. So it got me thinking, can I apply the mamba mentality in my practice?

After all, there are many instances in the Canon where the Buddha displayed what can be considered as a mamba mentality. Of fear and terror, the Buddha said the following in the Bhaya-bherava Sutta:

So when fear & terror came while I was walking back & forth, I would not stand or sit or lie down. I would keep walking back & forth until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came while I was standing, I would not walk or sit or lie down. I would keep standing until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came while I was sitting, I would not lie down or stand up or walk. I would keep sitting until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came while I was lying down, I would not sit up or stand or walk. I would keep lying down until I had subdued that fear & terror.

I don’t think I can commit to sitting for 6 hours a day, 6 days a week for 6 months, at least not now or anytime soon. But one of the qualities I can borrow from Kobe’s mamba mentality is having conviction, the unshakeable sense of certainty that effort and persistence bear great fruits.

Having conviction is important in the practice. Thanissaro Bhikkhu advises us to “Make an effort. Don’t give up…You always have to try to energize the mind so that it’ll keep making progress…” We must keep having conviction until we develop acala-saddhā or unwavering conviction. It is a type of conviction that is firm and does not deteriorate.

Like Kobe who didn’t stop until his final goal (victory) is achieved, let us continue to train ourselves to become better and better until the final goal of the practice is achieved.

Of a disciple of the noble ones who has conviction,
it can indeed be expected that he will keep his persistence aroused for
abandoning unskillful mental qualities and
taking on skillful mental qualities,
that he will be steadfast, solid in his effort,
not shirking his duties with regard to skillful mental qualities.

– Saddhā Sutta  (SN 48:50)

Allen Quintos, one of the initiators in KM and a writer by profession for over a decade, screens through all content released and published, ensuring its truthfulness.

The thing about friendship…

My daughter and I usually have this series of movies to watch over the Yuletide break as a sort of fun, self-imposed tradition.  This season, we decided to revisit another favorite of ours, the Avatar:  The Last Airbender series, aka ATLA, from Nickelodeon.  ATLA is set in a world where people have the capacity to bend elements to their will.  It narrates the journey of the young Avatar Aang and his friends from the South Pole through the North Pole—enabling him to master all the elements as an Avatar should—and to his eventual victory over the tyrannical Fire Lord Ozai who wants to conquer the whole world.  Along the way, with guidance from his tea-loving uncle Iro, fire bender Prince Zuko, Ozai’s banished son and, at first, the arch-enemy of Aang, goes through a difficult transformation as he tracks Aang and company, and eventually helps Aang master fire-bending, becoming his friend.  With Aang and gang’s element-bending quest, as well as that of fire-benders Iro and Zuko’s, playing in my mind, I started thinking deeply about friendship.  Are these people real friends?  What IS friendship?

photo credit:

This might sound a little ridiculous to some people.  Everybody knows what friendship is.  Friendship is celebrated all the time!  Just look at all the touching quotes about friendship one can find online!  Woe is she who has not found one!  But really, friendship is such a loose term that encompasses so many levels of relationships.  There are the acquaintances, the cliques, the close friends, and those friends “in the inner” circle.  The last one is often qualified as “true” friends.  But what constitutes true friendship?

Most would say that true friendship is a friendship through thick and thin, and not just during “fair weather.”  A friend once said of herself that she is my “bad-weather” friend because we are not the type who would hang out and have fun together—we never have time for that—but when things go bad, I usually go to her to express my disappointment in people.  (Actually, I go to her and tell her how right she has been about people.  Lessons learned.)  I am grateful for her, and I am amazed that none of the usual conditions of friendship—hanging out, constant communication, etc.—is required for us to stay friends for decades now.  So the things usually considered as necessary for true friendship turn out to be inessential in this case.  Moreso, because no amount of hanging out and closeness were able to save my friendship with my…well…ex-friends.  So what makes up true friendship? 

Aristotle, writing in 3rd century BCE in Ancient Greece, thought that friendship is of three types:  one of utility, one of pleasure, and one of virtue.  Utilitarian and hedonist friendships are easy to come by.  I think this is how we usually measure the “true-ness” of friendship.  One is a true friend because she was there when we needed someone.  One is a true friend because she has the same likes and dislikes and we can be our “true” self with her.  She allows us to be who we “really” are and lets us be.  Rarely do we find appreciation for friends who keep us on our toes, who show us our limitations, and who encourage us to be better than ourselves.  These people we usually shun.  They are not fun.  They are “not accepting of who we are.”  They are not our friends.   Aristotle disagreed.  He thought that the best type of friendship is the one of virtue:  people who selflessly desire the good and betterment of the other, whose main desire is to keep friends on the path of virtue as they themselves continue to train and practice being virtuous.

Earlier than Aristotle, however, in 5th century BCE, the Buddha had already taught about virtuous friendship:  kalyana mittata—spiritual friendship.  On one occasion as told in the Upaddha Sutta when Ven. Ananda commented that having admirable people as friends is half of the holy life, the Buddha replied that it isn’t so.  Instead, it is the whole of the holy life.  By having “admirable friendship (kalyanamittata), admirable companionship (kalyanasahayata), admirable camaraderie (kalyanasampavankata),” one is led to the cultivation of the dharma, the 8-fold path.  In the Sambhodi Sutta, the Buddha teaches the same:  that having virtuous friends helps in one’s cultivation of a virtuous life.  One will more easily maintain sobriety because these friends will often talk of the righteous path, and of observances to keep in order to achieve freedom from the afflictions of the world and thus, become enlightened.

The Meghiya Sutta illustrates this more concretely.  Ven. Meghiya insisted on meditating in a beautiful grove even though the Buddha would rather he didn’t.  When finally allowed, Ven. Meghiya realized that he couldn’t meditate properly and was plagued by ill thoughts, sensual pleasures and violence.  When he confessed this to the Buddha, the latter explained to him the value of being surrounded by spiritual friends (kalyana mitta).  Friends of virtue will always speak of the dharma, encourage the contemplation of compassion, and teach mindfulness.  They will help in one’s journey towards understanding the nature of the world and eliminate illusory views about it that cause suffering. 

Now these don’t sound like the “true” friends that are usually sought after.   These aren’t friends who would hang out and allow us to be just the way we are.  On the contrary, these are friends who would push us to be better than we are.  They will not listen to our ranting about our unpleasant experiences and allow us to harbor ill will because of them.  They will show us how to adjust our views, how to change ourselves so that we do not suffer what we suffer anymore.  They would be concerned with our spiritual development rather than stay with us during happy hour drinking our woes away.  Of course, it does not mean that admirable friendships are all devoid of utility and pleasure.  But the latter comes because of the shared effort to cultivate virtue.  These friendships do not end because they are no longer useful or no longer pleasurable.  On the contrary, they stay true despite difficulties, despite the unpleasantness of realizing that we still have a long way to go before we reach enlightenment. 

Unfortunately, our ego-centered lives would find this boring.  This is not the kind of friendship we want.  Yet, if there is any true friendship at all, would this not be the truest of all?  When friendship is about righteousness and spiritual release from suffering, would it not stand the test of time because it is not dependent on utility and shared pleasures? 

So I think of Avatar’s Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Tof, and of Iro and Zuko.  Theirs have not been easy friendships in the ordinary sense of the term of always having fun and allowing one another to be “just the way they are.”   But they have fought together against the worst enemy of all:  one’s self.  Their transformations were effected by their common struggle to fulfil their full potential.  It was quite a struggle, but they all pulled through, and in the end, transcended each of their own selves.  I think of my own friends who are not always with me but who, in the few times that I am with them, remind me of the dharma and allow me to speak of shared spiritual goals.  They trigger in me self-reflection and allow me to remember the value of gratitude and humility.  In day-to-day busyness they recede into the back of my consciousness and I get caught up in what and who are immediately around me, demanding my attention.  But in the quiet of my aloneness, I get the chance to consider myself lucky that I have them in my life, although we are quite different in the way we are.

Admittedly, this is not the popular sense of friendship people think about.  It is rare because it is often difficult and therefore does not usually merit the term, “friendship.”  But here at the Kalyana-mitta Meditation Center, this is what we aspire to do, and to be.  

A bodhisattva’s practice is to cherish more than our bodies
Our hallowed spiritual mentors, to whom,
By entrusting ourselves, our faults come to deplete
And our good qualities come to expand like the waxing moon.

—from Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices, by Togmey-zangpo[1]

[1] Admirable Friendship (2012, Vernon, CT:  Phap Hoa Buddhist Temple), p. 33.

Leni Garcia, MA, PhD works as a professor of Philosophy but lives as an artist-advocate for creativity, gender- and religious-inclusivity, pluralism, and environment care.  When not trying to form deep connections with gentle, sentient beings, she pushes paint on paper, dances, and recycles odds and ends that can be recycled.  Her favorite term-break activity is marathon-watching movie- and cartoon-series with her daughter.